February 9th, 2017
In this week’s Backstory, another tragedy of insulation, compassion’s need for coordination, and the fervently informed response to immigration
It’s only been a few weeks since we recalled one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s timeless dictums:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. . . .
In the context of that speech, King was making the larger point that our irreducible interconnectedness enjoins upon us both due reverence for every action we take and due regard for how what affects those we think at a distance in fact affects us all.
Recognition of that entanglement can be a catalyst for working great good.
But the fact of that entanglement can also be the factor accounting for unthinkable malevolence.
This week we listened to an interview with Sam Quinones, author of a new book entitled Dreamland. (HT: Ross Douthat) Players from disparate places unwittingly colluded to cause a true catastrophe.
Young men from depressed areas in Mexico hear of the lucrative opportunities in running black tar heroin across the border. Seeing their peers come home with unthinkable wads of drug-smuggling cash, the one possibility for escaping their grinding poverty and becoming the hero of their families and friends makes the dangerous and morally dubious act seem less problematic and more providential.
The irony of their work: they wouldn’t dream of taking the drug themselves or letting their kids partake. But through an entrenched, entrepreneurial network of dealers these young men participate in an ever growing and increasingly unwieldy distribution of one of the most addictive substances known to humanity. But, as we’ve alluded to, theirs is not an isolated phenomenon. They form part of a larger web.
Rewind to the late 1980s and 1990s. Opiates, of which the black tar heroin is only the most recent derivation, have been employed by humans as palliatives and hallucinogenics for thousands of years. In the last seventy-five years, pharmaceutical companies began finding ways to harness opioid power for the sake of pain-management in reliable forms and regulable doses. But until those decades before the turn of the century, doctors were more circumspect in prescribing them.
A tide turned when the medical community began seeing salutary results in more potent forms of the drug, a claim buttressed by the corollary that said drugs were not inherently addictive. So brands like OxyContin–the name connoting its ability to release the compound continually over time–flooded the market with the promise of non-habit forming pain-reduction. In numerous cases that non-addictive quality proved true; many patients experienced none of the liabilities associated with addictive substances. But what was true for some was not at all true for many others. In fact it’s more like a crap-shoot to know whether OxyContin or drugs like it will have an addictive effect on its user.
It’s likely you’ve heard of at least one case of someone who became hooked on the euphoric feeling OxyContin offers. Most pain-management involves a need that lasts 5-7 days. Yet doctors almost invariably prescribed 30-day supplies of the drug–more than enough to both assuage the pain and to form a physiological desire for its effects that we associate with the beginning of addiction.
How are the drug-dealers carrying heroin packets in uninflated balloons in their mouth to conceal their stash related to the American medical profession’s embrace of drugs like OxyContin? For the lion-share of his research as a journalist into the trafficking of black-tar heroin, Quinones assumed the market for heroin blossomed on account of demand for the often lethal drug (according to Quinones, more people die from heroin overdoses than die from gun-deaths in a given year). In fact it was an overabundant (and accessible) supply of FDA-approved drugs like OxyContin that created a demand, first for the regulated opiate, and then, when that ran out, the kind cooked up by self-taught chemists like those immortalized in Breaking Bad.
But there’s a third constituency that became entangled in this opioid web. Neither sellers nor prescribers, but kids. In more affluent neighborhoods where achievement is king, and often in sports-related activity, injuries sustained in those events called for that kind of pain-management that both reduced inflammation of the affected region and expedited healing–all so the student-athlete could return to their team as soon as possible. The tragic addictive tales that befell CEOs and radio personalities and other celebrities now began to affect adolescents pressured not just by the will to win, but often by parents who saw their kids’ success as the ticket to glory. The surplus OxyContin their doctors were happy to prescribe led to a whole new, and rising generation to become entrapped in the addictive web. And just like the aforementioned pattern, when the OxyContin ran out, the black-tar heroin became a readily available and more than adequate substitute. And you don’t have to go back far into the local annals (cf. the communities in the northern regions of Dallas County) for abundant evidence of heroin’s reach into the middle and upper-middle class.
Men trying to escape their destitution. Doctors looking for a effective way to manage pain. Kids and their parents looking to nurture their extra-curricular activity into something like a career. All became entangled in that downside of the fact that we all exist in a web of mutuality that inevitably weaves a single garment of destiny.
Why do we tell you this tragic tale?
At the end of the interview with Quinones, the host of the podcast, Russ Roberts, asked his guest what most accounts for the proliferation of dangerous opioid use and the myriad ways in which it’s broken open into a national and international crisis. While Quinones enumerated various theories out there (a failed war on drugs, on ending poverty, on regulating medical professionals), to him none best explained why this has become an epidemic more so than the loss of vital community.
While more connected by technology and travel than at any time in human history, we have also become the most insulated society. We’ve replaced real with virtual connection. We’ve learn to cultivate carefully curated versions of ourselves rather than offer ourselves in full transparency. In our isolation, Quinones argued, we often turn to that which ends up killing us or compromising others. Sealing ourselves away in a preferred autonomy, we end up making devastatingly deleterious choices. We lose ourselves because we have lost–(read: sacrificed)–our place in community.
This Sunday we’re continuing our series on the Apostles’ Creed by sitting with its statement of belief in “the holy, catholic church–the communion of saints.”
One might wonder why a faith whose center is doctrine arising from unparalleled historical events would emphasize the communal context in which that doctrine is to be cherished. But let Quinones’ appalling account of the intersection of desperation, medication, and aspiration be just one more very real, very human argument for the need to re-create those communal contexts clearly essential to our flourishing–or at least our protection from self-inflicted disaster.
The loss of community that gives rise to this kind of human catastrophe is no proof of the resurrection. That we require vital community does not elevate the church as the only place where community can be found. But if the church is as the Lord, whose blood purchased it, defines it, then it is furnished with all the features we need, and some features that other communities cannot claim.
So let’s consider Sunday what it is to love the church as the church–to see why, even if we often feel compelled to give up on it, God has chosen not to give up on it.
In case you missed it, we’re looking for deacons, servants who will oversee the work of mercy among us and through us. Our nominations for deacons close this Sunday. Here’s a little from Calvin in his Institutes about their role and importance. As you’ll see, Calvin deduces two categories of deacons, which in our practice we collapse into a single office.
The care of the poor was committed to deacons, of whom two classes are mentioned by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, “He that giveth, let him do it with simplicity;” “he that showeth mercy, with cheerfulness,” (Rom. 12:8). As it is certain that he is here speaking of public offices of the Church, there must have been two distinct classes. If I mistake not, he in the former clause designates deacons, who administered alms; in the latter, those who had devoted themselves to the care of the poor and the sick. Such were the widows of whom he makes mention in the Epistle to Timothy, (1Tim. 5:10). For there was no public office which women could discharge save that of devoting themselves to the service of the poor. If we admit this, (and it certainly ought to be admitted), there will be two classes of deacons, the one serving the Church by administering the affairs of the poor; the other, by taking care of the poor themselves. For although the term “diakonia” has a more extensive meaning, Scripture specially gives the name of deacons to those whom the Church appoints to dispense alms, and take care of the poor; constituting them as it were stewards of the public treasury of the poor. Their origin, institution, and office, is described by Luke, (Acts 6:3). When a murmuring arose among the Greeks, because in the administration of the poor their widows were neglected, the apostles, excusing themselves that they were unable to discharge both offices, to preach the word and serve tables, requested the multitude to elect seven men of good reports to whom the office might be committed. Such deacons as the Apostolic Church had, it becomes us to have after her example (4.3.9)
Who among our membership reflects the kind of humbleness of heart and skillfulness of hand to help us make sure mercy is at the heart of our community? Who would best fit the scope of the responsibility as outlined here in our Book of Church Order (Chapter 9)? Would you pray and reflect–and then approach someone you think might be willing. Then if they’re game to start this conversation with us, nominate them by completing this form and either emailing our clerk of Session, Doug Pollock, or handing your form to one of the elders. (As per our BCO, nominations may be made by those who are members of CtK.)
Training for our prospective candidates will begin later this month, breaking for the summer and concluding this fall. Following an examination, passing candidates will be set before you for election. We hope to ordain our first deacon class before year’s end.
We must all get used to the new reality that most controversies henceforth (though perhaps it’s always been this way) will manifest the tendency both to dismiss necessary detail in order to defend a position, or to declare a position indefensible not so much on the merits of the issue but as a proxy for other objections with its holder(s).
What we’ve seen since the Executive Order on immigration was issued a couple weeks ago confirms how we all must learn to be far more patient both in obtaining and analyzing the facts.
So as a short list of helpful reads in the roiling over refugees, here’s a few we’ve come by:
Matthew Lee Anderson over at MereOrthodoxy provides us a meta-analysis of the most prolific and salient commentary, along with adding his own assessments as to how Christians might conceive and respond to this crisis.
Meanwhile Anderson’s comrade in arms (and my new favorite links-list source), Alisdair Roberts offers the long-view of immigration policy, mindful of the recent EO, but also grounded in the contours of the debate long before our feeds were teeming with text on the subject.
David Platt, no johnny-come-lately to the topic of being present to the sojourner, places the policy squarely in a biblical context.
But lest we imagine this whole crisis in purely analytical terms, there’s no substitute for hearing the real experiences and incisive ruminations of erstwhile refugees. Julia Ioffe, a former emigre from the former Soviet Union speaks up.
And on that theme of first-person experience, Audrey Assad was born and bred in America, but she is the daughter of a Syrian refugee. We’ve heard her and sung her before. Now you can hear her tell her father’s story here: